Conserving biodiversity in the face of climate change requires a predictive ecology of species distributions. Nowhere is this need more acute than in the tropics, which harbor the majority of Earth's species and face rapid and large climate and land-use changes. However, the study of species distributions and their responses to climate change in high diversity tropical regions is potentially crippled by a lack of basic data. We analyzed a database representing more than 800 000 unique geo-referenced natural history collections to determine what fraction of tropical plant species has sufficient numbers of available collections for use in the habitat or niche models commonly used to predict species responses to climate change. We found that more than nine out of 10 species from the three principle tropical realms are so poorly collected (n < 20 records) that they are essentially invisible to modern modeling and conservation tools. In order to predict the impact of climate change on tropical species, efforts must be made to increase the amount of data available from tropical countries through a combination of collecting new specimens and digitizing existing records.
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